“Stack that paper up, then make boss moves;
She like to argue, so I sent that [girl] to law school”
Preach x Young Dolph
Backdrop: As of May 16, 2020 I am officially a Doctor of Jurisprudence, having obtained my J.D. from Tulane Law School. I was often asked (and still am), “What is/was law school like?” “Was it hard?” “How did you manage time, it seemed like you did a lot!” “What is it like being a black law student” “What about student loans?” Now that I’ve graduated, I’ve had some time to reflect on my journey. This 5 part blog series is written for all potential law students, current law students, and those who have it in the back of their mind. I am VERY transparent and I know that this journey was MINE. I am the first in my family to become a lawyer. I went to a school that embraced black students (note: it is not one of the 6 HBCU law schools) and I was in a city that is filled with love. I am passionate about civil rights and was intentional about my academic course work and extracurricular activities to align with that passion. I state all that to emphasize a few points: you may not agree with everything, you’ll comment “that’s not for me,” on a few topics, and for those current law students or lawyers, you may even say, “nahh law school was way different for me.” It’s totally fine because actually, that’s the beauty in it all.
The Cost of Law School + Student Loans
Law school is expensive. (Emphasis on the period.) Especially the really good law schools that we all strive to attend. It’s imperative that you have a full picture in your mind as you read.
The average cost of law school in 2020 is: $49,548/yr for 3 years
The average student debt of a law school graduate is: $145,000
Tulane’s direct cost of law school: approx. $55K/yr
Tulane’s direct costs + costs of living: approx. $70K/yr
Tanisha’s Student Loan Debt as of May 2020: $262,903.20 (that interest is something else!)
Quick Definitions! (real quick, I promise)
Direct costs: tuition and fees; (for undergrad this also includes room and board)
Cost of living: rent and other bills, food, and fun (this number varies depending on cost of living for a city and a student’s lifestyle)
You can view a breakdown of costs for just my first semester of my first year below. Two things will stand out: my student loans and my refund amount.
Student loans are a very real thing for nearly all law students, especially those of color. Although I was blessed to earn a full ride to my undergrad institution, Philander Smith, I still graduated with approx. $13K in student loan debt, which is actually very good considering most students’ undergrad debt. For those wondering how I accumulated loans with a full ride, well, I acquired them to cover my cost of living.
Then I decided to go to law school. And I knew I would have to take out loans. I knew this because a hard truth in black families is that we cannot afford to send our students to college, let alone professional school. A discussion of financial success, barriers, and health in the black community can formulate a blog post of its own. When I told my mama that I wanted to go to law school, she was 100% supportive but also made clear that I would have to secure funding for it, whether that was scholarships or loans. My two siblings and I each were awarded amazing academic scholarships for undergrad so she knew that I could do it.
For me, only one law school offered me a scholarship, and that was Tulane Law, a $10K scholarship for all 3 years. I did not maximize my application process so I likely could have been awarded more scholarships, but here we are. Nevertheless, I had already made a promise that I would not allow the fear of student loans to prevent me from attending law school. The reality is though, that $10K scholarship per year barely put a dent in my costs.
So, I did what I had to do and I am not ashamed of it. Never have been. For each of my 3 years of law school, I took out approximately $60K of student loans.
Taking out those loans was the best decision I made for my educational journey. It was either that, or go home.
I made clear to several people: DO NOT ever tell me to not take out loans if you are not willing to put up any finances to assist me. And I’m not talking chump change. Many of my classmates (including my black classmates) had trust funds, wealthy parents, and amazing scholarships. I had my village of family and friends who could afford to send a few dollars here and there but not nearly enough to cover everything. I know that I’ll have to pay them back for years to come and that it will be a discussion for me and my future husband (where are you?). BUT I also knew that I wanted to obtain my law degree and I refused to allow society’s education barriers for students of color that come in the form of student loans prevent me from reaching that goal. (Again, emphasis on the period).
So, if you want to go to law school, try to get those scholarships honey! But also, don’t you dare allow the fear of student loans to stop you because also, there were a lot of my NON black classmates who took out many loans as well. We just have to take out more. And nearly every lawyer you meet will have a student loan story to tell you.
Refunds + Cost of Living
I know y’all are like, “YOU GOT $10K EVERY SEMESTER AS A REFUND?! WHAT!” Girl, yes. And every dollar was student loans. Again, I am not afraid of them, just smart with them. Yes, I said smart for taking out 60K in student loans every year.
I have needed every bit of my $10K each semester. My rent ($950 because I wanted to live alone) was paid by me. My groceries, fun money, electricity, wifi, haircuts, megabus tickets, and flights have all been paid for with student loan refund money. Law school textbooks (new and rented) each semester would cost me nearly $1K give or take a couple hundred. I paid my apartment furniture with it. I purchased a new laptop and even paid for my bar exam application with the loans. You name it.
At the beginning of each semester, I paid my one credit card bill and 6 months of rent ($5,700), wifi ($550), and electricity ($750). I booked trips home or to other places ahead of time. Yep, I blessed others with that loan money and supported businesses and more. I partied with the money. I used it for my cost of living.
This is where I’m probably different from a few students. Many choose to live with others so their rent is approx. $500 per month, or less. I almost had a roommate but I knew I wanted to live alone. Over 75% of my class were blessed (or privileged) by their parents to pay for all these necessities. Again, I had a village who came through with cash apps every semester towards the end when my money was low (but all my bills were paid, heyyy) and I am so grateful for them (SHOUT OUT TO Y’ALL). But again, there was no way they could send me $10K. So again, I did what I had to do. Because guess what, that $10K after all my bills and what not, truly was not enough. Some may say I should have stretched that money until I couldn’t and I DID! So I also got a JOB (a few of them).
Working + Law School
Do not work your first year of law school. Academics are too important. Some have done it and I salute them for it, but if you can afford not to, I highly recommend not to do it. I didn’t work my first year but I hustled the next two.
- I owned and still own my resume and cover letter business. $35 per resume and $20 per cover letter was helpful when I had customers and enough time to actually fill orders.
- I worked for Tulane’s Athletic Department my second year as a mentor/tutor for 2 football players. Great job but I had to let it go because it was a lot of energy and effort needed that I couldn’t continue to expend. It was $15/hr too!! But I could only work about 5-7 hours a week.
- I also received a stipend my second and third years for being an Assistant Director and later Director for Tulane’s Legal Program. Now THAT was helpful to receive biweekly.
- I worked as an Admin Assistant for Tulane Law’s Legal Clinic for one semester making just over minimum wage and gave that up too because I needed that time and energy for other things I was involved in.
- I was a rep for BARBRI (a bar prep course) all three years and received a stipend my third year.
So I really tried to offset my student loans with other jobs but the reality is, law school doesn’t quite set you up to be able to work full time and barely even part time, so it’s either you have the money, take out student loans, or hustle hard and lose nearly all of your sanity to try to cover all the costs.
PAY IT BACK!
I saved this section for the end because the topic of paying student loans back is ALWAYS discussed in mainstream media, living rooms, group chats, blogs, and more. But many people leave out the other discussions that are also needed (which is what I just listed above).
Here are some facts:
Student Debt is the biggest contributor to the racial wealth gap for millennials. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans have $1.6 trillion dollars of student debt, covering 44.7 million Americans. Student loan debt is jeopardizing the short and long-term financial health of households by preventing young people from accumulating wealth or saving for retirement. A BET Special, moderated by Angela Rye, titled: “Young, Gifted, and Broke” aired in September 2019 and highlighted how African Americans specifically are impacted the most by student loan debt. The Financial Services House Committee has held a Committee Hearing to address the student loan debt crisis that plague millions of Americans today. The hearing, titled “A $1.5 Trillion Crisis: Protecting Student Borrowers and Holding Student Loan Servicers Accountable”, is just one step in raising more awareness of student loan debt.
Here are some more facts:
The law school you attend and the type of law you want to practice plays a big role in whether your loan “investment” was a good choice. U.S News reports:
“law school applicants who want to get a good return on investment for their legal education face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are more likely to receive significant scholarships and tuition discounts if they apply to safety law schools where their academic credentials are well above the norm. However, these schools may offer weaker job prospects than more selective law schools.
Furthermore, the law schools where median private sector salaries are highest often charge hefty tuition, so applicants who do not have significant financial aid may be left with a large bill and incur significantly more law school debt.”
A lot of law students work really hard to obtain a job with a prestigious firm in order to earn a 6 figure salary within their first year after graduating. I’m talking $150,000 and more. We call it the path of big law. Big law is a hard track to take for law students of color but IT IS DOABLE because I have some dope classmates and lawyer friends who have reached that goal!
However, many more students will not immediately make 6 figures once they graduate. Or they simply choose not to work at a firm that offers that type of salary (me. A lot comes with it, we can chat sidebar.) I’ve chosen the path of policy and public interest. There are some pretty good salary jobs in the field but it’s still competitive to secure a job. Starting salaries for these non big law career paths are around $50,000.
Wow, that’s not even the cost of tuition at Tulane. My mama makes more than that with a high school diploma. You mean to tell me I worked hard for 3 years and all these loans to make this amount? A scam!! Lol JUST KIDDING!
Lawyers who have paid their loans off in a relatively short amount of years have paid between $1500-$2000/month on their student loans. (Whew, chile!) I have a screenshot from February 2020 of what it would look like for me to pay off my loans with a $45,000 salary, see below.
A lot of people also bring up the fact that the government forgives student loans for those who work for the government but I’d like to note that since Donald Trump has become President, this incentive has not been awarded nearly as much. Also, you have to make 120 consecutive payments towards your loans (10 years) and THEN they will pay off your direct loans only.
I don’t want to bore you with numbers anymore or make you fearful about law school debt.
Listen, YOUR GIFTS WILL MAKE ROOM FOR YOU!
You have to think positively but also be realistic. I know that I will pay student loans for several years, but I know my gifts will open up doors with salaries I could not have ever imagined for myself. I knew what I was signing up for before I signed that dotted line. I know I live in my own privilege of not having a lot of student loan debt from undergrad. I know all of this. But I also know that my degree will be worth it because it has never been about the money for me!
I also know that many black professionals warn about having this mindset, by telling us to "be smart" but a lot of them live within their own privilege too. I would not have taken out that many loans if I could have afforded not to (duh!) Which is why I encourage scholarships first!
Thanks for reading, stay tuned for the next post about academics and grades in law school!